In Food + Drink

Legendary Spanish Chef Frank Camorra Shares His Secrets To The Perfect Paella

Expert tips for nailing the Spanish classic.

Spain’s national dish paella originated in the countryside town of Sueca, near Valencia. It was originally prepared by simmering rabbit and chicken with rice, vegetables, saffron, paprika and other seasonings, and was designed to feed the farm workers from the rice-growing region.

Since then, this classic one-pot dish has evolved into many other regional variations, most of which also include seafood. Rice, saffron and vegetables, however, will always be at the heart of a proper paella.

how to cook paella

Rice, saffron and vegetables will always be at the heart of a proper paella. Credit: Unsplash / Annie Spratt

Frank Camorra, an award-wining executive chef at Sydney restaurant Movida and a guest on SBS TV’s Food Safari Fire, knows a thing or two about making great-tasting paella.

Camorra’s family hail from Andalusia in the south of Spain, where the Moorish occupation resulted in a cuisine that converges Spanish traditions with nuanced North African flavours. Today, in addition to his gig at Movida, he also serves Spanish-inspired cuisine at Original, Aqui, Next Door and Bar Tini.

He says what makes a paella great is adhering to the same, simple processes that have been passed down through generations. Here are his tips on how to perfect paella:

Use the correct cooking vessel

Paella is Valencian for pan. The single metal plate was designed to be shallow and open in order to allow for rapid evaporation as it was used to feed the hungry farmers and labourers who worked the land.

Camorra inherited his rustic paella pan from his father, a former metal worker, who crafted it out of necessity when he arrived in Australia from Spain.

“My dad made a heap of pans back in the day because you couldn’t get them in Australia in the 80s,” he says. “These days, they are available at places like Peter’s of Kensington and the Essential Ingredient.”

Start by browning off your meat and seafood

Camorra says if he was making a classic chicken and seafood paella he’d start by sealing off the chicken and then moving it to the side.

“After sealing the chicken until it’s caramelised, I’d add a bit more oil, then the calamari, then push that to the side, too. When you add the ingredients for the sofrito, it then takes on the flavour from the chicken and seafood,” he says.

Cook the sofrito slowly

how to cook paella

The key to pulling together the perfect paella is to start with quality ingredients for the sofrito. Credit: Unsplash / Cel Lisboa

The key to pulling together the perfect paella is to start with quality ingredients for the sofrito, and cook it low and slow, which adds more complex layers of flavour to the dish.

Camorra says there are as many variations of a sofrito as there are villages in Spain. His take on the aromatic mixture starts with diced onions, rosemary, garlic and saffron, which he cooks slowly for about 20 minutes.

He then adds peppers and tomatoes, pork sausages and green runner beans and a splash of fino (sherry), which gives the dish a lovely depth of flavour.

Add liquid first then the rice

The gentle cooking of the sofrito allows the mixture of sautéed ingredients to come together in an almost jam-like consistency, says Camorra. It’s then that he adds stock or water to the paella pan.

He says there are two schools of thought: add the rice first or add the liquid first. “I like to add the liquid and simmer it for a few minutes before adding the rice as the liquid becomes like an instant stock when the water is infused with the sofrito,” he says.

Camorra says he prefers to make paella using Bomba rice because it’s more forgiving than Calasparra.

“I add one and a half handfuls of rice per person and the flavour of the rice will depend on the flavour of the sofrito. The more it reduces the better it is,” he says.

Don’t overfill the pan

Camorra says the cooking process for making paella is very simple but there are a few things home cooks need to understand.

“Don’t overfill the pan. There is only one chance you get at getting the paella right. Don’t use too much rice or too many ingredients. Follow these processes and maintain the same formula every time and you will find it easier and easier to maintain consistency,” he says.

Keep the pan flat

how to cook paella

Keep the paella pan completely flat so the ingredients cook evenly. Credit: Unsplash / Kaitlin Dowis

Camorra says the paella pan has to be completely flat in order for the ingredients to cook evenly.

“The paella pan was designed so that the food doesn’t take too long to cook as the hungry farm workers were waiting for it,” he says.

He says most of the good paellas have one centimetre of the pan thinly spread with rice with all the remaining ingredients are on top of that.

“If you overfill the pan with ingredients, the rice at the bottom of the pan is gluggy; you don’t want that.” Instead, Camorra recommends using a spirit level to ensure the pan lays flat over the flame so the liquid is distributed evenly.

Never, ever stir a paella

It’s the golden rule. Camorra says the less you play around with a paella, the better it will be.

“A good paella is cooked like a pilaf. The rice is separated so every bit of moisture is absorbed. And what every good Spanish person does is let the paella rest,” he says.

Camorra advises covering the paella with a few tea towels until it’s virtually finished before letting it sit. “You never eat a paella hot. You must let it sit and rest to allow the last bits of moisture to be absorbed,” he says.

Camorra says a true paella forms a crust at the bottom of the pan known as a soccarrat and it’s that crust that is key to knowing the dish is a success.

(Lead image: Frank Camorra & Camorra’s famous paella / image: supplied)

Published 12 March, 2019